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Exhibitions and Projects
2 November – 6 December 2017

Revelations, November 2017

The Ecstasy of St. John of Nepomuk

The painting comes from the chapel of the countryside mansion Črni Potok (Schwarzenbach) south of Šmartno pri Litiji in the former Carniola. Besides this painting, there were also four tondi by Metzinger in the chapel, featuring the Doctors of the Church. All were purchased in 1960 by the National Gallery of Slovenia. They date from around the year 1740, when the mansion was owned by the Apfaltrern barons. The well-kept building is now part of a health centre and also houses the old people’s home called Dom Tisje.

Valentin Metzinger, who was active in Ljubljana in the Baroque period and was one of the most prominent painters in the city, painted the ecstasy of St. John of Nepomuk in a well-balanced coordination between form and emotional content. The figures of the angel and the Saint are most happily united inside the exacting format of an oval. Their interwoven postures give perfect harmony to the work, further enhanced by a careful selection of colours. A special emphasis is given to the content by the focused theatrical illumination of the limited space; it comes as God’s light from the direction of the Saint’s rapturous gaze. The priest kneels before the prie-dieu on which the breviary and his biretta are laid; he holds a crucifix in his right hand, while his left hand is elegantly pressed against his chest in the usual Baroque fashion to emphasize psychologically his ecstatic absorption. The Saint is easily recognized by his established attributes, above all the fur almutia, or mozzetta respectively, the sign of his membership in the cathedral chapter of priests. The golden cross hung on a blue ribbon around his neck is yet another sign of his being a canon. The service of bishop’s deputy – during the forced absence of Jan of Jenštejn, Archbishop of Prague, St. John of Nepomuk performed the archbishop’s duties – is underlined by three keys offered to the Saint by an angel. Because of his observance of the Seal of the Confessional, since he refused to divulge the secret of the queen’s confession to her tyrannical husband, King Wenceslaus IV, as the medieval legend tells, he was tortured in 1393 and finally thrown from the Prague Bridge to drown in the Vltava. This virtue of the Saint is suggested by the angel’s gesture of the forefinger on his mouth. Painted above Saint John’s head is a tiny circular halo, although it was usually painted in the form of five stars which, according to a legend, pointed to the spot where the Saint’s dead body was lying, having been washed ashore. In fact, the five stars symbolize the Seal of Confession that was the cause of his execution: namely, the Latin five-letter word “taqui” translates as “I kept silent”. Often also a palm frond is added to Nepomuk’s depictions as a universal Christian symbol of martyrdom.

St. John of Nepomuk (his real family name was Wölflin) was initially venerated only in the Bohemian lands, but in 1729 his worship was proclaimed for the entire Catholic world, with his feast day on May the 16th. His priestly role was particularly emphasized by the Jesuits, and during the Counter-Reformation struggle they included him among their patron saints, even though he had died long before the foundation of the Society of Jesus (1534). His mortal remains rest in a magnificent silver coffin which is the object of central interest in the Prague Cathedral of St. Vitus. An important role in the canonization of the Saint was played by the former Bishop of Ljubljana, Count Ferdinand Kuenburg of Gorizia, who was later, from 1711 until his death in 1731, Archbishop of Prague. St. John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of priests, of the Seal of Confession, and against slander. His statues used to be placed on bridges as a plea for guardianship in general and against floods in particular as well as against accidents of drowning.

Ferdinand Šerbelj

2 November – 6 December 2017
Narodna galerija
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana